Miss Missouri Erin O’Flaherty has already made history as the first openly gay Miss America contestant, and now she’s hoping to be the first to take home the crown.
“Being able to represent Miss America as a gay woman would mean a lot to me, because I really feel a responsibility to make the LGBT community proud, and make history and break another ceiling for a minority group,” O’Flaherty, 23, tells PEOPLE.
Whether or not she does take home the crown on Sunday, she has already made an impact on her community.
“The response has been incredible,” says O’Flaherty. “It was overwhelming at first because I never expected it to be national news. The LGBT community has gotten completely behind me. I get messages every day, words of encouragement from total strangers, thanking me just for being visible in this capacity.”
The American Society for Suicide Prevention and Trevor Project ambassador says she didn’t hesitate to open up about her sexuality while competing.
“It wasn’t difficult, only because I knew that if I didn’t compete openly, I wouldn’t be successful and I wasn’t going to be true to myself,” she says. “I really think to have the genuine experience, you have to be genuine in who you are. It was a little bit scary, but there was never going to be another decision that was made.”
The 2017 Miss America competition airs Sunday, Sept. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.